How to plant a tree

Winter is the best time to plant a tree and, yes, I know it’s cold and wet out there, but after the ‘digging a big hole’ workout you'll be warm as toast and reap the benefits of these dramatic plants...
An ancient Chinese proverb says that ‘the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the next best time is today’, and I couldn’t agree more. Trees are the most spectacular of all plants and I'm on a mission to encourage everyone to include at least one in their garden or on their balcony.

Even if you have enough trees in your garden or live in a flat, you can still join in the fun at one of the Tree Council’s planting events during National Tree Week (visit, which runs from 26 November to 4 December and celebrates the launch of the winter tree planting season. Check out the website, too, for loads of great advice on planting and aftercare.

So, why plant a tree? Well, my question is really, why not plant a tree because they have so many benefits, it would be crazy not to. Here are some facts for starters:

  • Trees absorb carbon dioxide, the main pollutant responsible for global warming

  • They cool the local environment on hot days

  • Trees make brilliant wind breaks, sheltering gardens in cold areas

  • By shading and sheltering your home, they can reduce heating and air conditioning costs

  • Trees absorb rain water, reducing local flooding

  • They provide habitats and food for wildlife

  • It’s been proven that trees lift your spirits and help people recuperate from illness

And last, but not least, they are exquisitely beautiful plants, creating permanent structure in your garden, offering stunning spring flowers, a canopy of lush foliage in summer, and fruits and blazing leaf colours in the autumn. Convinced?

Trees for small spaces

There are many trees ideally suited to small gardens that will look great all year round. My favourites include the Himalayan birch (Betula utilis jacquemontii) with gleaming stems as white as Simon Cowell’s smile; the crab apple Malus ‘Evereste’, which sports elegant white spring flowers that open from red buds and beautiful red crabs in autumn; and Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), which come in a range of stunning foliage shades, from deep purple to yellow and lime green, and then burn brightly in autumn when the leaves turn vibrant oranges and reds. Crocus sells these beauties, or visit Barcham Trees for mature specimens that will create an instant effect – they also offer expert advice if you’re stuck for choice.

Alternatively, opt for a fruit tree. Apples, cherries and plums are easy as pie to grow and have pretty blossom and delicious fruits into the bargain. Victoriana Nursery offers a comprehensive choice and friendly customer service.

[Two images: above] Brian North took these stunning pictures of Himalayan birches and Malus ‘Evereste’ earlier this month in a garden designed by John Nash

Pot up a tree

Check out these stylish pots from Urbis (below), perfect for potting up trees on a terrace. They’re made from glass-reinforced concrete and are a fraction of the weight of cast concrete. The Poppy Bowl with a rusty finish costs £792 and is planted with a Japanese maple, while the elegant white Radius planters on this contemporary deck are £626 each and adorned with olive trees.

How to plant a tree

In my book How to Grow Practically Everything, published by Dorling Kindersley and the RHS, I show how to plant a tree – and practically everything else, of course. Remember to site your tree away from your house and overhead power lines. Here, I’m planting a hawthorn, the perfect wildlife tree for a small garden.

Step 1

Dig a hole twice as wide and the same depth as the tree’s root ball. Puncture the sides and base of the hole with a garden fork to allow the roots to penetrate. Most trees are planted with the top of the root ball slightly proud or level with the soil surface. Check this by laying a garden cane over the roots and add and remove soil until it is at the right level.

Step 2

After teasing out any congested roots circling the root ball, remove the pot or packaging and place the tree in the hole. Fill in around the root ball with the excavated soil in three stages; add soil and gently firm it down with your foot each time to remove any air pockets. Make sure the root ball is just above the soil surface. As a guide, look for the “nursery line”, where the trunk darkens at the base, showing the level the tree was grown at in the nursery. This must not be buried.

Step 3

Attach a stake that will reach a third of the way up the trunk. Hammer it into the ground at an angle of about 45 degrees, with the top facing into the prevailing wind. Attach a tree tie at the point where the tree and stake meet, using a spacer to prevent them rubbing together. Water the tree with a two or three cans of water during dry spells from early spring to autumn for the first two years until the tree is established.

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Zia Allaway, Garden Expert

View all posts by Zia Allaway, Garden Expert